I haven’t said anything until this point regarding several recent events. I personally prefer to remain silent until I believe I have something constructive to say, something helpful, something which may lead to positive change. I don’t necessarily believe anyone I know is doing the following, but I don’t want to speak merely to make myself feel better, presuming myself therefore to be part of the solution rather than the problem. But I do have a bunch of thoughts and feelings. And in my case, this deserves more than a short quip or meme.
First of all, I am upset to hear about further instances of black men and women being killed and/or harassed in what seems to be entirely unnecessary ways and for mistaken and/or other reasons which are quite out of proportion to the preceding events. Words don’t and can’t do this justice. I’m upset to think that the people I know who have dark skin live in a significantly more dangerous world than I do (as do women, though that’s another topic). I’ve had a handful of encounters with police for minor or mistaken events. Yet I never feared that I might not live through the encounter. I was never beaten or detained. Yet these are things blacks may face, likely enough for them to invoke reasonable fear.
I also have been silent because I don’t want to merely complain nor proclaim how outraged I am. I tend to think practically. I want a solution. How might positive progress be made in this issue? In order to answer this I ask, what is the root of the problem?
Many people point to racism. Though this may be true in a sense, I don’t believe this is very helpful. This is partially because I suspect the vast majority of people don’t think they’re racist. I’m guessing even many white supremacists wouldn’t consider themselves racist. Remember, “separate but equal” was claimed during the time of legal segregation1. “We believe everyone is equal, you do your thing over there and leave us alone to do what we want without you.” Or for an example from the recent confrontation in New York’s Central Park, a woman pointed out the man’s skin color, apparently revealing a degree of bias, yet she claims to not be racist2. Racist is such a negatively loaded word, I doubt the effectiveness of calling people racist and/or trying to point out their racism. There are many forms of what is effectively racism but many of these aren’t thought of as racist by a significant number of people.
I’m sure that there are people who are quite consciously racist. However, I suspect this isn’t the primary source of trouble. I suspect that systems which have a much greater negative impact on minorities are one of the main problems. There are things such as voter id laws which opponents claim are necessary to prevent voting fraud. To them it’s not about race, yet these things affect blacks un-proportionally. Unrecognized biases are another problem. There is a lot of history behind all of this which I won’t attempt to convey here. But the short of it is that because of this history, we’re not all on an even playing field now. In a manner of speaking, the U.S. won’t be rid of racism until we actively unwind much of what was done in the past.
Practically… Probably the first important step (for non-blacks) is to learn. What kind of issues are important to our darker skinned brothers and sisters? Why are these important? What has their experience been? One of the challenges is that we tend to be surrounded by people who are similar to us. Often times we won’t hear about what other communities are talking about or events which are opportunities to learn more. It takes some work to find and start engaging with some of these. But for some easy examples, I follow The Equity Alliance, Community Oversight Now, NOAH – Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition [TIRRC], and Tennessee Justice for our Neighbors on Facebook and have attended events they’ve hosted.
As a white American male, my life was really no different when Obama was president compared to Trump. Who is governor and mayor and most any other public official affects my life little (at least directly). This affords me ability to hold more theoretical political opinions. Abortion. Homosexuality. Transgender bathrooms. Immigration. These are a few examples of politically devisive topics. None of these will affect me directly, but I can still hold strong opinions and vote based on them. However, politics and the decisions the government makes do have significant impact on people, it’s just usually other people.
I’m struck this contrast: there were people—the vast majority of whom appeared to be white3—who recently protested the covid-19 restrictions. My impression is that they were demanding to do what they want regardless of the risk it might pose to other people. In contrast, a racially mixed group4 is protesting now, demanding that darker-skinned people be able to live without fear of being killed by police and/or whites for little to no reason.
I have the impression that minorities are perhaps more affected by local government than they are national government. Yet how many of us are aware of local politics? What topics do we base our vote on if we vote at all? I’ve found it interesting how black churches seem to be much more intertwined with their communities. Many of the political issue events I’ve attended have been hosted by black churches. This is one of the problems I see with a lack of diversity in many churches. In a church of predominantly white affluent congregants, it’s easy to think that government and politics are a separate realm in which we shouldn’t get involved. It’s easy for us to emphasize the spiritual and personal aspects of Christianity and continue to be oblivious to the negative impacts government may be having on our neighbors. It’s easy for people to potentially attend church for years and continue to unknowingly support harmful systems.
I have more thoughts than I can share here, but I must share a few more.
Conspicuously absent has been any mention of terrorism.
Have you ever thought that brunettes are likely to be criminal, or that people with green eyes are less intelligent, or that people with straight hair are more likely to con you? If these seem ridiculous, why is skin color any different? (Rhetorical question; of course I realize it has everything to do with history.) It seems that across the entire history of humanity, we’ve always divided between “tribes”. But in many ways, there’s no more need for us to separate those of African descent any more than most of us do Irish, German, Italian, Poles, Norwegian, etc. now days in America.
In response to the question regarding the root of the problem, I must mention that the Fraternal Order of Police came to mind. They are the largest police union, representing nearly half of police officers from what I can tell. (It so happens that they are based here in Nashville and previously in Indianapolis.)5 I admit that I can’t claim to be overly familiar with them. Yet I’ve been very disappointed in everything I’ve encountered so far. My first impression came during a forum regarding setting up a community oversight board in Nashville. This came about after several police shooting deaths of blacks here. I was curious what the FOP representative (James Smallwood, president of the Nashville FOP6) would say. I was frankly shocked that he showed no compassion, empathy, or understanding at all. Instead, he defended the officer right in front of the parents of one of the killed men! The whole tone of the FOP made me feel like I was back in pre-civil rights America. “Don’t worry, we know what’s best for you; we have everything under control. Any accountability is unnecessary (forbidden).” (They claim that internal police reviews are sufficient.) The FOP fought tooth and nail against having an oversight board, and from what I understand, the police continue to resist, hinder, and delay the C.O.B. as much as possible.6 From what I understand, nationally the FOP has said little to nothing about the issue of alleged police racial bias and misuse of force. Instead, they seem to exist only to protect their members no matter what and to resist any attempt at accountability.
Is the FOP a major source and/or accomplice in bad police behavior? If so, what if anything can be done about it? They aren’t a political organization themselves, so direct action may not be possible or fruitful. How can we communicate that we support good police officers while simultaneously communicating that unnecessary force and harassment won’t be tolerated? I expect that the majority of police officers are good, sincere people who work in a tough job. Unfortunately, even if only 1% of officers are bad, this would still mean thousands of dangerous officers on active duty across the country. How can we weed out and hold accountable those who aren’t acting honorably? Why do so many seem to still be embraced by police forces across the country? Is there some reason that the leaders of the police are afraid to discipline or fire officers for bad behavior?
The position of Sheriff is an elected one.7 How many of us know anything about our sheriff? Can we make race and police force decisive issues in who we elect? Police chiefs aren’t elected, rather they are appointed by a mayor or other elected official. While we may not be able to vote directly, can we pressure the mayor to make this a critical priority?
Regarding the case of George Floyd, I understand that the police were acting in view of other people. This caused me to wonder, what would happen if someone tried to save a person whose life seemed to be endangered by the police? How severely would this person be treated? How would this treatment compare to that of the officer(s) who committed the killing? Would they be beaten and imprisoned for interfering? I can’t imagine the police would look on this action favorably. At the very least, this incident demonstrates clearly why some communities feel a need to be protected *from* the police rather than feeling protected by them.
I do have concerns about the general public acting as a court. Too many people make snap judgements based on a headline, meme, 120 character tweet, and rumors, and are eager to mercilessly hang the victim of their judgement. However, it seems the institutions which are supposed to perform these functions have rarely served justice in this area. In other words, we shouldn’t be the ones to pass judgement here, yet we must because those who are supposed to have repeatedly failed to do so. And in at least some cases, the situation appears to be clear enough to not require an in-depth investigation. Our society will be safest and healthiest when it works for us all. The more we divide and work to protect us against them (for example, not wanting to adequately support urban schools), the worse it will be for us all.
8. See also https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6080222/ for a law enforcement death report.
9. See also Kneeling and the Flag, Police and Race, Guns, etc. — Understanding What’s Behind the Controversies